The Rose Bowl and its traditional partners, the Big Ten and the Pac-10, accepted the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) concept more slowly than the other college football entities, which quickly put their traditions and affiliations at risk for the possibility of a true national champion the moment it could be arranged.
The Rose Bowl and its partners thus thwarted such efforts by the BCS predecessors, the Bowl Coalition and the Bowl Alliance, which formed as a response to split national championships in 1990 and 1991. In three of the six Bowl Coalition/Bowl Alliance years (1992-97), a Big Ten or Pac-10 team polled No. 1 or No. 2 and, since neither conference joined the arrangements, they couldn't possibly work.
Of course, this came as no surprise or outrage to the great number of Big Ten people, who laughed off the idea that the rest of America could hold a national championship without them. The major Midwestern universities, being Midwestern, rejected out of hand the promises of change in pursuit of glitz and glam, just as they feared change would leave them behind, since glitz and glam isn't one of the Midwest's strong suits.
They liked the old way fine. Win the Big Ten, win the Rose Bowl and let the voters decide the rest. Why fool with tradition? What's life without it?
If one were to ask the alums of any Big Ten school except Ohio State and Michigan in those days whether they'd prefer a national championship game to the Rose Bowl, most would have picked the Rose Bowl, and a good number of OSU and Michigan alums would have agreed. If that sounds odd, remember that the Big Ten regards itself as special, different and superior in the protective Midwestern senses of those superlatives.
Their point made, the Rose Bowl and its partners finally joined the game in 1998, and thus was formed the BCS, complete with the Big Ten, the Pac-10 and all the rest.
So where are we now? After Ohio State beat Michigan in last weekend's Game of the Century, OSU retained its No.
Michigan's regular season is finished. The Harris Poll panel of experts and the USA Today poll of coaches already put Michigan No. 3 behind USC, and the computers will follow suit if the Trojans win their remaining two games. If BCS No. 5 Notre Dame beats USC, it's even money the voters will move the Irish up a couple spots and the computers might be even more generous. Then we'll have the controversy as to whether Notre Dame should go to the title game ahead of Michigan, even though Michigan beat Notre Dame this season.
And we've still got the Southeastern Conference to worry about. Florida simply can't move up from the No. 4 BCS position for all the surrounding commotion. Now Arkansas is gaining, up to No. 6 in the BCS. Florida and Arkansas play in the SEC championship game in two weeks, with a place in the BCS Championship Game at stake.
But we can pick through all the possibilities and permutations of potential outcomes, and every conceivable scenario boils down the same story: Ohio State is the No. 1 team and the only unbeaten team in the bunch. Every other team under consideration will have one loss, meaning a new puzzle for the BCS era has arrived.
Ordinarily, the problem is picking which two out of three or four teams belong in the title game. This time, we already know only one team is truly worthy of the game and we're trying to decide which of the others is a suitable opponent.
In other words, the old system would have worked out just as well or better this year. Ohio State would be No. 1 going into the Rose Bowl against USC, which might be No. 2 by then anyway. The poll championships would be decided in a true Rose Bowl played on Jan. 1 rather than some trumped-up super game being played in Glendale, Ariz., a week later. This is one year in which a national championship game not only isn't helpful but is damaging.
The Midwestern traditionalist can't be amused by any of this. And the Rose Bowl can't be delighted either. Three times in the last eight years, the Rose Bowl has turned up a generally meaningless game, whereas it used to be meaningful every year. In exchange, the Rose Bowl twice put on the "national championship game" -- in 2003, when Miami crushed Nebraska 37-14, and this past January, when Texas won the national title in a 41-38 classic against USC.
But the same exchange has twice deprived the Rose Bowl its place in the national championship theater. Ohio State won the championship in Tempe in 2002, and USC's 2004 Rose Bowl win issued an auxiliary champion because the "national championship game" took place in New Orleans between Oklahoma and LSU.
Now the Rose Bowl is left out once again. And you can't tell an Ohio State fan, or any Big Ten person, that it's more special to finish off the national title at some contrivance in Arizona than at the Rose Bowl, which is Ohio State's true home as the Big Ten champion. Plus, if Michigan doesn't earn its rematch against the Buckeyes, they'll likely go to the Rose Bowl as a second-place team.
The Rose Bowl used to matter, a lot, to the Big Ten way of living life, and the "national championship game" is a poor substitute even when the Big Ten is involved. Of course, most Big Ten schools outside Columbus and Ann Arbor don't even dream of the national championship and haven't for about 40 years.
But the Big Ten representative stood for all the Big Ten at the Rose Bowl, where the most provincial Hoosier or golden Gopher lined up behind their champion for the greater good. You learned, as children in the Midwest, that it was the right thing to do.
And the Rose Bowl champion was a true champion, a Big Ten champion or a Pac-10 champion plus one. Indeed, the concept behind the Rose Bowl was to create something of an East-West championship game, officially pitting the biggest conference in the west (the Pac-10) against the largest in the east (The Big Ten) beginning in 1947.
That worked close enough to justice for the Midwestern football fan, because the effete Easterners couldn't gather into conferences and the South dragged its feet on integration and competitive reform. The Rose Bowl used to make Big Ten fans from every school think they were playing for a major championship that blessed justice and humble decency. Without it, the Big Ten schools are playing for themselves.
One suspects that if you asked OSU fans who saw both, they'd say it's always great when the Buckeyes win it all but it's much greater when they win it all at the Rose Bowl.